How it ends for defeated or retiring members of Congress

January 3, 2023 12:44 pm

There's no moving crew to help defeated or retiring members of Congress vacate their offices. (Stock photo via Getty Images)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Most Iowans are familiar with the balloons, buttons, and hoopla parts of political campaigns.

Some wonder, however, what happens when a campaign ends in defeat — especially when the defeated candidate is an incumbent, with offices and staff — and with legislative and other work that still needs to be done.

How does all that shut down?

A reader of “Barry Piatt on Politics: Behind the Curtains” recently requested a specific “behind the curtains” look at just that — what happens to the office of a member of Congress when they are defeated or simply retire?

It’s an interesting question, and the answer may not be exactly what you think.

I’ve helped close down three congressional offices over my nearly 40 years working in the U.S. House and Senate — one U.S. representative who was defeated and two U.S. senators who retired. So allow me to share what I saw and experienced in those situations.

First of all, contrary to what some folks might think, no one from HR comes to the office the day after Election Day, asks the defeated or retiring member to pack up their belongings, watches as they do it, and then marches them out of the building.

Nope. It doesn’t happen that way.

Nor does a crew of movers come in and pack everything up while the representatives or senators sit back in their office chairs, smoke cigars, and reflect on their career.

Have you ever watched the air slowly leak out of a car tire, while the car still operates, until the tire goes completely flat? It’s more like that.

Congressional terms end on a specific date — this year Jan. 3, the same day the new Congress begins and the same day the new term their successor begins. Those who are departing from the House or Senate are in office — and are expected to do the job just the same as on the first day — until the last day, the final day of their term.

That used to not be such a big deal because the expiring Congress used to be long gone out of town before the new one convened in January. That’s not the case any more.

Complicating things is that congressional staff in an office that is shutting down — many with families — need to move on and work on landing their next job, whether it is in Congress or elsewhere. That means shortly after the handwriting is on the wall about the approaching end, a steady but slow drip-drip-drip begins — departing staff members who resign to get on with the next chapter of their lives.

Most House and Senate members understand this is going to happen and simply try to work around it. But as one who stayed on to the very last day in each of the three offices I helped close down, that means there is a constantly shrinking staff on board.

Legislative work still needs to be done, however. Committee work goes on. Votes on the House and Senate floor still need to be cast, mail still needs to be read and answered. Constituents who need help solving problems with the federal government still need to be helped.

All with increasingly fewer staffers to help do it. Each week, the numbers dwindle. By mid-December, there is usually a small fraction of the original number of staff left on hand.

That is another reality of closing up a congressional office.

There is usually an effort, as well, to pass on any particularly important legislative initiatives to colleagues who will remain, to ensure that they don’t get dropped by the wayside. This can be done inside the state delegation, to committee colleagues, or to co-sponsors who helped in the original effort.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is often not a lot of baton passing from an outgoing member to an incoming member who will be assuming that member’s office, but there is some. Real priority projects will be passed on, especially if the members are of the same party and see eye to eye on the project, but — as a general rule — each incoming member wants to chart their own course and not spend their term carrying out the legacy of the member who preceded him or her. They ran on their own platform and want to pursue it. After all, the voters elected them to the office, not the outgoing member.

Packing up

Who packs up? Not commercial movers, that’s for sure.

Those doing the packing are usually the same few and dwindling staffers who remain and the member of the House or Senate themselves. Yes, if you have an appointment with an outgoing House or Senate member — remember this work continues right up to the end — as the final departure day nears, you are likely to meet with a House or Senate member who is wearing blue jeans, a work shirt and work gloves. They will literally be packing their own boxes filled with their papers, records and keepsakes with the aid of a very few staffers who remained to help.

Many of those papers and records will be shipped off to archival institutions for preservation, usually to a home state university library, or a state archives. Committee records go to the National Archives. Executive Branch records also go to the National Archives. When a House or Senate office is closed, it is up to that individual member to decide what to do with the records.

What about the actual physical offices? What happens to them?

The institutional administrators give the outgoing members a “move out date.” It is usually not a suggestion. Last minute extensions are possible, but only if they can be justified; and then the date becomes “hard,” unchangeable. The “move out date” is needed because the moving crew has to have a clear office space to refresh and then move a new member into. It’s like your apartment manager readying a vacated apartment for a new occupant. One big difference: the apartment manager will generally have couple of weeks for the flip. The moving crews in Congress generally have a day. Maybe two.

What happens if one of the office suites that becomes available at the end of a Congress is a prime one, formerly occupied by a powerful, long-term member of the legislative body? They get the “monster digs” — plenty of space, spectacular view, prime location, etc. because of their seniority, of course.

Does an incoming freshman get to choose it?

No. Of course not. Congress already thought of that and it’s not happening.

Every incumbent member of the body — ranked in order by seniority in the Senate, seniority and a lottery drawing as I recall in the House — gets a chance at claiming an empty office before it becomes available to a freshman. That also means it is unlikely that an incoming member will get the office of the member they succeeded.

I always thought this led to a routine that was a bit awkward.

Not long after Election Day, one by one, House or Senate colleagues who were remaining in the new Congress would begin visiting the office of the soon to depart outgoing colleague. They would generally be accompanied only by one top aide. They were there to scout our office to decide if they wanted to claim it. We were still working and packing there, but they were walking through it and checking it out. They were polite and respectful, of course. They often engaged us in conversation. But still.

Yes, it was a clear sign that the work of the House and the Senate would go on. That it was going on right there in front of our eyes. But it always seemed a bit premature to me. Kind of like in an old cowboy western movie when the casket maker starts to carve the coffin before the trial has even started. The time may come for that but we’re not quite there yet. You know?

It is always hard to lose — no one ever thinks they deserve to lose. No one ever thinks their boss deserves to lose. I’m not sure if the departure being the result of a retirement makes the leaving any easier.

I chose to be one of the “last dogs to go home” in each of the three offices I helped close down because I genuinely wanted to help wrap things up and I knew, as the communications director, somebody had to be there to work with reporters whose jobs did not stop just because our jobs were about to do so.

There was one more reason I stayed until the end, however. I had so many good memories of our work and the good people I met and worked with in those offices. It’s hard to leave all that behind, no matter what the circumstance. Even when only the walls and furniture remain.

It was comforting to know, as in so many other difficult moments in life, that there is a routine and a process for getting through it all, and ensuring that the work continues.

This column was originally published by Barry Piatt on Politics: -Behind the Curtain. It is republished here via the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Barry Piatt
Barry Piatt

Barry Piatt has had a front row seat for state and national government and politics for over 50 years, working first as a political reporter in Iowa, and later as a senior advisor for members of the U.S. House and Senate and candidates for U.S. president. His blog, Barry Piatt on Politics: -Behind the Curtain, is on Substack.